In November 1923, a small suitcase was found washed up and abandoned on the beautiful, picturesque, bushland shores of Athol Beach on the edge of Mosman. Inside was the body of a healthy baby girl of about three weeks of age. Cause of death was not simple drowning. Rather, she had been crudely strangled by a piece of string and suffocated by a pretty embroidered handkerchief which had been unceremoniously stuffed into her tiny mouth. Both instruments of death were clues which would eventually lead the police to her mother, and a whole cast of other colourful characters besides. The contents of the gruesome suitcase were indeed deeply shocking.
But sadly, the killing or abandonment (or both) of newborn babies was all too common in 1920s Sydney. Many, and who knows just how many, were quite simply never recovered, lost forever to the waters of the deep, or dropped and left to decompose in a well, or abandoned on grassy vacant wastelands on the city’s less inhabited outskirts. Numerous women gave birth in secret in backyard dunnies and simply left the baby where it fell. Some were later discovered, many more were not. Others were discovered in very public spaces, at railway stations or on trains, bobbing on the waters of the harbour, found in Hyde Park, or simply left in bins or amongst the sand dunes of the eastern beaches. Some were swaddled, others still naked from birth. A few were discovered just alive in church porches or on the steps of the city’s charitable institutions. They might have been the relatively lucky ones, but they faced an uncertain future. Their lives henceforth would be shaped by their experiences post maternal abandonment. Were they institutionalised? Did they become a part of the boarding out system or were they later adopted? And that uncertain outcome was itself a whole other lottery of life, oscillating between the vagaries of orphanages, temporary parents in it merely for pecuniary gain, or, for the lucky ones, the warm loving embrace from adults who were genuine and heartfelt carers who truly wanted to parent.
Today the issue of abandoned babies and, relatedly, infanticide is deeply disturbing and macabre. Yet it is a crime with a very long history. This was certainly not a 1920s phenomenon. Throughout the nineteenth century, Sydney had long been accustomed to waves of what might only be described as ‘infanticide epidemics’. The sad and always tragic history of infanticide, stretches back much further again, across cultures, continents and centuries.
Tanya Bretherton has written a fascinating and compelling book around the ghoulish discovery on Athol Beach. From this one single incident, the reader is drawn into a fascinating story of crime, desperation, abandonment and poverty. This is a story of one woman’s fight for survival in which Sydney in the 1920s is vividly brought to life, but it is also a truly epic family saga. An almost century spanning tale of emigration and exile, from famine stricken Ireland to the rough mill towns outside of Glasgow, to Wellington in New Zealand, the boarding houses of Sydney, the solitary cells at Long Bay prison and back to Scotland again.
Sarah Boyd was a literate and skilled Scottish seamstress. Religious, quiet and always sober, she was perhaps somewhat naive in her relations with two failed lovers who both abandoned her when she was ‘with child’. But then again, maybe that was her bad luck and spoke more about unequal gender relations and the harshness of social mores in the 1920s? As an unmarried, deeply devoted mother to her son Jimmie, Sarah lived in constant and enduring poverty. Yet she was also a brave and fearless emigrant who left home and travelled alone to the other side of the world to avoid family shame. When she finally met a man who could provide her and her son with a stable and permanent home in country New South Wales she made a terrible and life altering decision, one that did not just change her life but also the life of her new born baby and that of her much loved son.
This is a deeply and profoundly sad book. It starts wretchedly and ends simply heartbreakingly. The theme of exile and emigration both as a choice and escape, but also as a punishment for social transgression runs deep throughout, as does the associated sadness and loss, sorrow and grief of the emigrant experience, chosen or otherwise. Perhaps readers would be wise not to read the book in one long sitting as I did. At its close, I was rather overwhelmed by a bleak dark cloud, which then turned into indignation at the sheer harshness of life for the struggling and the impoverished in those post war years, and, later on too, as the trajectories of Sarah’s son Jimmie’s life are further fleshed out with utterly heart rendering results. For him, like so many other British children of the 1920s and beyond, the promises of ‘Oranges and Sunshine’, were simply not to be.
The Suitcase Baby is expansive and gripping and there are unexpected twists and turns along the way. It will appeal to true crime readers and lovers of social, cultural and gender history. This is an important and, to date, untold Sydney story offering a fascinating insight into life as it was sometimes lived in the post war era. But it does have some flaws. It has been clearly, extensively and meticulously researched. The author is a sociologist with a forensic approach to accuracy and complex story telling, yet academic historians will criticise the paucity of footnotes and references. The book lacks even a bibliography, and many readers will regret the absence of an index. The awkward and clunky in text references to historians and experts can sometimes be rather grating. On occasion, despite the obvious research that has gone into the book, it also becomes rather generalising and the reader is left wanting something a little more particular and specific.
As a historian, The Suitcase Baby certainly did appeal to my connections with stories of lives lived in the past. In a novelist’s hands, this story might have soared just that little bit higher, but it also moved me emotionally, which is obviously the sign of a deeply compelling book.